Neurotechnology: Thieving from the thinking room?

4. December 2013

Research projects with billion dollar budgets both in the U.S. and in Europe hope to clarify and model the workings of the human brain. Matters here go beyond research in answering the question: Should we create an "optimised organ of thought?"

It was something akin to the official kick-off of one of the European Union’s biggest research projects. On October 7 representatives from more than 130 organisations gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland, to discuss cooperation in and strategies of the “Human Brain Project”. The union wants to invest in total an amount of 1.2 billion Euro in order to decipher the human brain and to gain insight into our thinking on the basis of models.

Fear of abuse

Should we now fear that within the next few decades researchers will be capable of deciphering our thoughts? Will we soon be able using medications and electrical probes to wipe or create memories? Is a person’s personality capable of being described in terms of activity data coming from his or her cerebral nerves? In accordance with the broad aims of the project, new knowledge should serve not only to better understand and treat mental disorders and mental suffering, but also for example in the development of new computer systems similar in operation to that of the human brain.

Mixed in with the hope of the researchers on new findings are also fears of its abuse by the military or commerce. By including a program focus “Ethics and Society”, which accounts in any case for three percent of the budget, the organisers want to address these concerns. Various ethics committees are supposed to discuss the impact of research outcomes and ensure that the research itself sufficiently matches ethical claims.

Neurotechnical warfare

Running almost simultaneously to the European project, the American counterpart BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) also started, which will map the human brain in a never-seen-before resolution. Here, too, the US president’s
Bioethics Commission advises on the consequences of such forays into the depths of the human brain. One of the three players of the U.S. government in this project, nonetheless, is DARPA, the research organisation of the U.S. Department of Defense. Its aim here is warfare using “neural engineering” and the processing of physical and psychological trauma in soldiers’ brains.

It has long been known that substances such as serotonin also have affects on moral decisions made by humans. In one publication in “PNAS” in 2010, Molly Crockett at England’s Cambridge University showed that high levels of this transmitter affords people the potential to be unafraid to hurt others – physically or financially. That could be rather undesirable with regard to soldiers. DARPA in contrast is highly interested in techniques that eliminate the psycho-traumatic memories held by soldiers involved in bloody battles. According to presentations given by William Casebeer at a recent ethics meeting in Philadelphia, U.S. Defense is keenly interested in using technical means to bring back memories in soldiers suffering from memory loss after brain injury.

No utopia: Memory manipulation

That these are more than mere wishes about a distant future is something shown by results from July this year. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology manipulated mice via optogenetic means such that they on a suitable occasion recalled events that had never happened. Using the “memory” of a certain stimulus, the scientists triggered in their four-legged participants a traumatic startle response. Other studies using propranolol indicate that the active ingredient when used on soldiers with post-traumatic stress symptoms deletes bad memories.

A further aspect emerged in the discussion during the meeting of the Ethics Committee in Philadelphia: David Chalmers, Australian philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist with professorships in Canberra and New York, observed an ever greater precision in the ability to read thoughts of the brain, something which can for instance help coma patients to communicate with their environment. What, however, when the brain scanner encounters memories of an unpunished murder done by the patient?

Discussion forums and conferences with laypersons

A special challenge is presented by the European brain project in further developing “neuromorph” computer technology: computing machines whose functioning is similar to that of the brain and can/could then also be passed on to robots. Would computers then ultimately be the better – or worse – form of people? Will computers some day develop a self-awareness imitating the nature of the human brain? Already at the beginning of the research program, which has been laid out over many years, those responsible for the project want at least to think once about these issues.

Therefore an independent ethics committee has the intention of dealing with these ethical aspects of the “Human Brain Project”. Via online forums, citizens of the states involved will also be able to join in the discussion. According to the intentions of the planners, every two years a gathering of lay people is to take place, where they can discuss their concerns and fears of uncontrolled research with the experts.

MRI scan for cases of refusal to testify?

It’s not uncommonly the case that these fears are unfounded. Before a robot emerges with human emotions and a capacity for compassion, but also for lies and hatred, some years will yet come to pass. By contrast, functional magnetic resonance is now already in the position to be able to predict some decisions in the brain, even before they are present in the consciousness of the person concerned. Also known as the “lie detector”, this type of brain imaging has since even influenced court decisions.

Will it occur in the future that the court will increasingly rely upon the outcome of a brain scan’s assessment of a defendant? Unsound mind or fully responsible for his or her actions? Another question might arise whenever an offender refuses to testify. Can we then send him or her to an MRI scanner in order to have his or her thoughts read?

The fact that through the detailed exploration of our thinking organ we then become involved in losing a part of our privacy should be clear to all. How does the interaction of billions of cells in our central nervous system operate? If we manage to target the outcomes of investigating this question rather more medically than militarily, more for scientific rather than for commercial purposes, a lot would stand to be gained.

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